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Saudi women challenging male business monopoly - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Veil-clad female workers process olives at a factory for pickling olives in the Saudi city of Tabuk on October 23, 2013. (REUTERS/Mohamed Al Hwaity)

Veil-clad female workers process olives at a factory for pickling olives in the Saudi city of Tabuk on October 23, 2013. (REUTERS/Mohamed Al Hwaity)

Dammam, Asharq Al-Awsat—Despite official statistics showing that 75 percent of economic activity by women in Saudi Arabia is in the fields of cosmetics and catering, some women are distancing themselves from the stereotypes and starting business ventures in other sectors.

In particular, some Saudi women have now broken ground in traditionally “male” fields, including construction contracting, sports and agriculture.

Among the kingdom’s female business pioneers is Fawaziya Al-Karri, the first woman to be involved in the contracting sector in eastern Saudi Arabia. Al-Karri left her old career as a teacher and entered the constructions sector in 2006. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat about her experience, Al-Karri says: “Working in this particular area is extremely hard. But for me, I’m diplomatic and patient by nature. I entered this field only after I studied it carefully for two years.”

Al-Karri admits that sometimes she is shocked by men’s looks of wonder and astonishment, especially at seeing her in the worksite. She says: “I met many people who expressed sheer amazement at seeing me at this work. Some of them does not answer me at first sight because of being shocked at the presence of a woman contractor on the worksite.”

“I hope I will find many [more] women involved in the contracting business. This field must not be a monopoly of men, especially that women are known for their accuracy and interest in tiny details,” she adds.

When questioned about the professional obstacles she has faced, Al-Karri says: “I feel awfully tired of supervising laborers and of dealing with customers, apart from the problematical issue of earning customers’ trust. Many customers are apprehensive about dealing with a woman in the contracting area, a situation I am trying to change.” Despite the difficulty of overcoming such obstacles, Al-Karri affirms that this will not prevent her from and backing and training other women being eager to enter this particular business, in order to enhance their chances.

Another pioneer is Saudi businesswoman Dina Al-Faris, whose entry into Saudi agribusiness ended a male monopoly in the sector. Al-Faris runs a caviar farm considered to be the largest in the Middle East. The farm’s current production is estimated at 2.5 tons of “black diamonds” per year, of which Saudi Arabia consumes nearly 20 percent.

Telling the story of her first step into the caviar world, Al-Faris told Asharq al-Awsat that it was thanks to her father’s support that she entered this business.

She says: “Fortunately, my father’s years of inquiry and preparation for this project were approaching an end when I graduated from college. Then, I joined the project to participate in the establishment of such a huge business in 2001.” Al-Faris sees herself as “a young ambitious Saudi woman who was educated by her adventurous businessman father, from whom she learned how to go through a new experience and face the business and investment challenge.”

Moving to a different sphere, investment in sports is no longer a monopoly of men. This year, the kingdom’s first sports center for women was inaugurated. The center is owned and run by Hana Al-Zuhair under license from the Saudi Youth Care Association in the Eastern Province. The center consists of different departments for fitness, karate, yoga, and other sports, including programs for children.

Al-Zuhair sees the center’s inauguration as the first step for a Saudi women’s investment in the sports area, and affirms that she did not encounter any difficulty when applying for the license, the first of its kind in the kingdom. During the center’s inauguration ceremony, Al-Zuhair disclosed her plans to back Saudi women sport trainers by offering them training programs. She added that the center, in collaboration with school principals and the Education Department in the Eastern Province, will also train coaches in schools after sports were approved in girls’ schools.

For his part, Fadhl Al-Bo Aynain, an economics expert, said that still there are several investment opportunities waiting to be grasped by Saudi women before it could be said that a male monopoly on business is broken.

Speaking to Asharq al-Awsat, Al Bo-Aynain expressed objection to women working in the building and construction industry, saying “I think that this particular area does not suit women, particularly that there are investment opportunities that could better suit them, areas where they would be creative. This incorporates, for example, public relations offices, marketing offices, organization of social occasion and other careers.”

A recent report drawn up by the Women’s Department at the Saudi Chambers Association said that Saudi women have made numerous contributions to the investment field after they were involved in new nontraditional areas and achieved notable successes in various fields. Women have been able to move away from sectors traditionally seen as more “female-friendly,” such as education and handicrafts and into real estate and industrial areas. Among its findings was that the employment of women in the real-estate sector is continually rising, while involvement in other sectors of the economy varies, and includes cosmetics, educational institutes, and other trade activities.

The report revealed that the volume of capital controlled by women jumped to SR 60 billion, whereas the total number of businesses headed by women registered with the kingdom’s chambers of commerce until 2012 increased to 38,750, spread across different areas.

According to the report, this number is set to continue to rise, a good omen for Saudi women’s participation in the years to come.